Keri Russell lost her voice.
The actress whispered a hoarse apology after canceling an interview last week, unable to muster much more lest she worsen her condition. She calls days later, sounding better and joking about all the time she spent promoting her new Netflix series, “The Diplomat,” while barely speaking.
It was like “The Little Mermaid,” she says. “You’re going to show up, but you’ll be silent.”
One could argue the mishap is straight out of “The Diplomat” itself, in which Russell’s title character, while competent at her work in the Foreign Service, is always a bit out of sorts. She gets into a physical scuffle outdoors just moments before meeting the president, whom she greets slightly out of breath and with dirt on her face. Later, she discovers a yogurt stain on her clothes as she gets ready to walk into the Oval Office. Losing her voice wouldn’t be out of the ordinary. Listen, life happens.
Ambassador Kate Wyler is our comfortingly human lens into the high-stakes realm of international relations. Well into preparing for a post in Afghanistan, Kate is suddenly reassigned — after a hostile, anonymous attack on a British vessel — to serve as U.S. envoy to the United Kingdom. A career diplomat, Kate is dismayed by the change and rejects what she considers to be the empty formalities of her new position. She feels like a fish out of water — until the situation gets more dire.
Pitching the role to Russell was a “moon shot,” according to series creator Debora Cahn. As America’s sweetheart in the teen drama “Felicity” and then its Soviet enemy in the spy thriller “The Americans,” which earned her three consecutive Emmy nods, Russell has established through her television career alone her penchant for “emotional depth and subtlety and nuance,” Cahn says.
Plus, Russell can do physical comedy. The actress was drawn to the humor baked into the series.
“I loved what a f—ing mess she was,” Russell says of her character.
Years ago, Cahn interned on the Hill for her congressman. It wasn’t a very lucrative gig, so she worked as a cocktail waitress by night. She would change in the bathroom of the Cannon House Office Building out of professional clothes stolen from her sister before making her way to the bar. A little self-conscious and exceedingly aware of her own experience, Cahn took a minute to assess the people surrounding her during the day. They weren’t all that different from her.
“You see that the people who are walking around the hallowed halls have yogurt on their pants and can’t find their glasses and spend 25 minutes looking for them, and it turns out they’re on their face,” she says. “Those things, in my experience, are always so, so, so close to the surface and just, just, just outside of the camera lens. That’s my favorite thing, where the ideal and the real collide.”
Cahn began her television career writing for and producing “The West Wing,” which, while romantic in its view of the American government, warmed her up to writing about the imperfect people who keep it running. After spending years on “Grey’s Anatomy,” she returned to the political realm with the CIA thriller “Homeland,” on which she rose to executive producer for its final season.
It isn’t so difficult to write about “venal politicians and dark machinations within the world of politics,” according to Cahn. The bigger challenge is crafting narratives around the failures of good people with honorable intentions. “The world is still a disaster,” she says. “For me, the interesting question is, how do you face the fact that in the hands of the best people, this is how it goes?”
Kate’s job requires her to work closely with members of the British government, in particular its haughty prime minister, Nicol Trowbridge (Rory Kinnear), and high-minded foreign secretary, Austin Dennison (David Gyasi). These personal alliances — and others — shift throughout the season, in part because of clashing personalities and at other times actual political agendas.
And yet, Britain and the United States must remain allies. Cahn frames her series as a study of long-term relationships, between both countries and people. While getting used to her new position, Kate must also navigate her tumultuous marriage to Hal (Rufus Sewell), a fellow career diplomat who is as well-known for his negotiating skills as he is his wild-card tendencies. His misbehavior often leads Kate to lash out — as she does at the outdoor scuffle before the president touches down in London.
“A relationship goes through a lot of different phases, and people change,” Cahn says. “When two people are married to each other and working together, you can’t escape the reverberations of professional changes in your relationship. That’s just woven into the fabric of it.”
Russell is no stranger to a professional relationship turning romantic. She speaks on the phone from a car headed to her house in New York, where she eventually steps out and, after a brief conversation with the driver, issues a playful plea to be let into her home. “Matthew’s locking me out,” she says, referring to the Welsh actor Matthew Rhys, with whom she starred for six seasons as KGB agents pretending to be an American married couple in FX’s “The Americans.”
“There are huge pros to being in the same business,” Russell says. Being able to speak in shorthand is nice, as is the partner’s built-in familiarity with specific challenges of the job. “Of course, there are times when competitiveness is part of the equation. That’s just part of life. I personally loved working with Matthew. He’s such a good actor, so he was an incredible partner to work with.”
The logistics can be hard. Just as a diplomat’s spouse must be “willing to move to a different country every three years,” as Cahn puts it, actors booking projects of this caliber have to coordinate their own globe-trotting schedules. While years removed from the joint commitment of their television show, Rhys and Russell still had three kids at home when she was pitched “The Diplomat.”
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“The Americans” had been a dream. Russell experienced what she refers to as the “rare combination” of a series being “of such high quality and so well received” and therefore found little reason to go looking for another. But after reading Cahn’s script, “I moved mountains to be able to do it.”
The actress isn’t sure how this new project fits into her career. While the roles seem wildly unrelated, starring in the WB’s “Felicity,” her charming breakout series about a New York college student that concluded in 2002, helped her book “The Americans.” FX Chairman John Landgraf knew the spy “was going to be very unlikable and wanted someone people already trusted,” according to Russell.
She isn’t concerned about the narrative this time around. Like Kate, she focuses on the job.
“More than anything, it was Debora’s writing,” Russell says of the new show’s appeal. “It’s the specificity of the daily embarrassments and the acrobatic motions of being a tandem couple in a career like this, and the ups and downs of that … I just thought, it’s so funny.”